As a boy in Italy, Philip Cabrato, 50 years ago and thousands of miles away, learned the craft of shoemaking as an apprentice to a master shoemaker -- cutting the leather, stitching the pieces together and binding the heels with care. Much in Cabrato's world has stayed the same since then.
He owns Philip's Shoe Repair on Upshur Street, an offshoot of the Georgia Avenue corridor, a river of small businesses that runs north from downtown. Cabrato's shop is one of those neighborhood mainstays, a calm oasis of commerce compared with the brouhaha of billion-dollar industry bailouts that has occupied the minds of the mighty in Washington.
Cabrato, 63, isn't sure why his business continues to chug along when others are failing. Sales are similar to last year's levels.
The downturn in the economy hasn't stopped his customers from dropping off their Evan Picones, Rockports and Neolites. But fixing high-quality shoes requires high-quality products. And that is where the current downturn in the economy may touch the Cabrato family most.
Cabrato and his wife, A. Lauretta, have already noticed a spike in the price of supplies. Last month they paid $42.50 for a roll of wire for the machine that binds heels. That is almost double the usual cost of $26.
"Soles will go up next month," Cabrato said. Leather will cost more, too. Looking at the books, A. Lauretta said she thinks they will have to raise prices. It has been six years since the last increase.
Cabrato is reluctant because he knows customers will complain. They don't like change, and neither does he.
For 35 years he has been caring for shoes according to the Italian tradition that he learned in a 12-year apprenticeship. Behind a small table in his shop he quietly buffs, sews and glues with his own calloused hands. The wooden shelves in his shop are cluttered with shoes waiting for repairs.
Despite the increase in costs, A. Lauretta suggests that the economic downturn is good for business. People cut back on buying shoes and just keep on fixing the old. "People can't afford to buy new ones," she said.
Cabrato came to the United States in 1966 to handcraft shoes. He was granted a specialized worker visa to make orthopedic shoes.
Not many people need shoes made. There is the occasional doctor's prescription for an orthopedic shoe and requests for handmade sandals from a local monastery. So his day-to-day work and primary income comes from repairs.
And Cabrato and his predecessor at the shop have proved there is a market for it on Georgia Avenue. Before he took over 35 years ago, another Italian shoemaker from Cabrato's hometown in Sicily ran the shop. It was called Nick's Shoe Repair and it first opened in 1924.
There have been rough patches. The most recent setbacks were the growth in the market for tennis shoes and the popularity of stores such as Payless Shoe Source that sell shoes so cheap it doesn't make sense to repair them. Along the way, business has stalled but never failed.
"We take some of the good and some of the bad and put it together," A. Lauretta said. "We make the best way we can."